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Prostitution in maritime London

The 17th century
The 18th century
Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies
19th-century responses to prostitution
The Contagious Diseases Act
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Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Guides to prostitution

Jack got safe into Port with his Prize (caricature).
View full size imageJack got safe into port with his prize. © NMM

Although many prostitutes were streetwalkers, others worked from home or could be approached in public places such as theatres. These tended to be the women who catered for the more discerning naval and merchant officers.

The names of these women, along with their addresses, a description of their appearance and their particular talents, could be found in publications such as The Covent Garden Magazine or Amorous Repository, The Man of Fashion’s Companion and The Rangers Magazine.

John Harris

Dispatch or Jack preparing for sea (caricature).
View full size imageDispatch or Jack preparing for sea. © NMM

The first lists, produced in the 1740s, were handwritten. They were complied by John Harris of the Shakespeare’s Head, a Covent Garden tavern frequented by sea captains and the directors of the East India Company.

Demand for the lists was so great that Harris eventually went into print, publishing Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar (1758). 

More than 8000 copies of the first edition were sold. Harris died in 1765, but his list was issued, and updated, on an annual basis until the 1790s.

An 'accomplished nymph'

The descriptions in the lists make interesting reading:

Quotation marks left
Miss B____rn. No. 18 Old Compton Street, Soho….This accomplished nymph has just attained her 18th year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianoforte, sings, dances, and is mistress of every manoeuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance...In bed she
Quotation marks right
is all the heart can wish; her price two pounds.
An English sloop engaging a Dutch Man of war (caricature).
View full size imageAn English sloop engaging a Dutch man of war. © NMM

Miss B___ rn's services were clearly aimed at the wealthy.

Preference for sailors

Jack Oakham throwing out a Signal for an Engagement (caricature).
View full size imageJack Oakham throwing out a Signal for an engagement. © NMM

Other women had a preference for sailors. Mrs Crosby of 24 George Street, for example, 'being particularly attached to the sons of neptune', had married an elderly sea captain. When he died he left her a small annuity. This was enough to keep her off the streets, but not enough to live on - so she worked as a part-time prostitute.

According to Harris’s List, she could be contacted at home during the day or in the theatre at night. She was described as having dark hair flowing in ringlets down her back, languishing grey eyes and a tolerable complexion. She charged one guinea (£1.05).

Men of war, bound for the port of pleasure.
View full size imageMen of war, bound for the port of pleasure. © NMM

Mrs Grafton of Wapping was also fond of sailors. Her 'best customers are sea officers, who she particularly likes, as they do not stay long at home, and always return fraught with love and presents'.

Mrs Grafton was 40 years old and apparently could give more pleasure than a dozen girls half her age. Her price was 5 shillings (25p). Most naval officers could afford that, as a day’s pay for most captains in this period was about 20 shillings (£1.00).

Miss Devonshire

Jack in a White Squall, Amongst Breakers - on the Lee Shore of St. Catherines (caricature).
View full size imageJack in a white squall, smongst breakers - on the lee shore of St. Catherines. © NMM
Harris used nautical terminology when describing the charms of the women. Miss Devonshire of Queen Ann Street had 'a fair complexion, cerulean eyes and fine teeth.'

However, the reader is also told that:

Quotation marks left
many a man of war hath been her willing prisoner, and paid a proper ransom…she is so brave, that she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters, and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm,
Quotation marks right
and be briskly boarded.

An English Privateer bringing in La Monsieur, a French Prize (caricature).
View full size imageAn English privateer bringing in La Monsieur, a French prize. © NMM


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